A fresh perspective on HE teaching

A mock analysis of possible TEF scores, released by THE [1], suggests a long awaited new perspective on teaching in UK HEIs. The dominance of research-intensive universities in league tables over the previous decade, and more, has largely mis-represented the quality of teaching across many of the smaller, campus-based institutions. Soon we will begin to see a new picture emerging of the standard of teaching across the UK, allowing prospective students to make better study choices, and challenging many universities to seriously invest time, resource and imagination into undergraduate and postgraduate education.

As with any new initiative, it will take time for an accurate picture to emerge. However, three key questions confront all involved:

  1. what do we mean by ‘teaching excellence’ ?
  2. how do we measure ‘teaching excellence’ ?
  3. do we need to change our current teaching practices ?


What do we mean by ‘teaching excellence’ ?

Excellence denotes some measure of quality, a model of its kind, or the very best there is [2]. Given this, it may seem surprising then that in this initial THE mock analysis, the criteria for teaching excellence were: graduate employment; student retention; and student satisfaction. In reality, they are tried and tested in recent annual league tables and were directly referred to by the White Paper [3] as being likely to be the initial measures considered (along with a written account provided by each institution). However, these are only represent a proxy measure of teaching, offering conflicting perspectives on whether a student stays on a course, whether they are generally happy by their final year, and whether they enter employment shortly after.

In contrast, Penn State [4] describe ‘teaching excellence’ as:

  • an academic process by which students are motivated to learn in ways that make a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on how they think, act, and feel;
  • a process that elevates students to a level where they learn deeply and remarkably because of teacher attributes that are outlined below.

How could these alternative views of teaching excellence be incorporated into the TEF ?

How do we measure ‘teaching excellence’ ?

These are a number of ways to measure student engagement with University life. Some have been rigorously mined in recent years to produce clearer snapshot data for new students and crude, but irrationally interesting, league tables, such as the KIS [5]. Other forms of student data are now beginning to be more readily available through aggregating analytics data from information services, library and learning management systems, for example. Still we struggle for helpful metrics of teaching quality; these exist within largely qualitative programme reviews, and a measure of learning gain can be evaluated by comparing entry scores with final attainment results.

The challenge is to determine actual measures of teaching truly equate to a measure of quality. For example, is time spent in a lecture theatre a better form of teaching and learning than a well constructed self-directed learning activity? Similarly, would teachers embracing flipped teaching be punished for reducing teaching time? The use of analytics is equally tempting, but could reward page clicks over learning; the use of algorithms to compare trends might also be difficult to illustrate teaching and learning over engagement.

Do we need to change our current teaching practices ?

Universities will be forced to respond to the TEF. The mock analysis is the first of many comparisons across HEI’s which will highlight disparities in teaching-focus, beyond existing measures of student engagement. Some may rest on the gold plated laurels of prestige and brand reputation, whilst others will strategically boost marketing and student service budgets to improve engagement.  However, from conversations across the sector, I now see many seeking to reshape curriculum delivery, increase attention on graduate skills (eg: the HEAR [6]), and address inconsistencies of teaching standards across their academic staff (eg: JISC digital capabilities [7].

My personal interest is how personal learning and assessment, using portfolios can impact on the TEF. These tools, such as PebblePad [8], can offer so much for students to take ownership of their learning and development, for staff to provide personal feedback and structured learning activities, and for institutions to move away from modular-based learning silos in the LMS/VLE, and to combine the co-and extra-curriculum with the mainstream learning activities. This aligns with an increasing expectation on Universities to make their courses more relevant to future ambitions, more engaging for learning, and more connected with academic and professional experts.


The TEF will take some time to materialise, but the shockwaves are beginning to be felt. Early impressions from the THE analysis reveal some startling discrepancies in teaching excellence, using previously available metrics. This will refocus minds on how we can accurately measure excellence in teaching at our universities, on what standards of teaching will be expected by future generations of learners, and how to meet those expectations with falling budgets. These are difficult decisions for the whole sector, but ones which are long overdue and necessary to deliver a quality education to the next generation.


[1] THE: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/mock-teaching-excellence-framework-tef-results-revealed-a-new-hierarchy-emerges

[2] Education Scotland: http://www.journeytoexcellence.org.uk/whatisexcellence/

[3] BIS White, Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility
and Student Choice Paper: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/sites/default/files/breaking_news_files/higher-education-white-paper-success-as-a-knowledge-economy.pdf

[4] Penn State University: http://www.schreyerinstitute.psu.edu/Definition/

[5] KIS: https://unistats.direct.gov.uk/find-out-more/key-information-set

[6] the HEAR: http://www.hear.ac.uk/

[7] JISC digital capabilities: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/rd/projects/building-digital-capability

[8] PebblePad: http://www.pebblepad.co.uk